Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Open Education

I'm participating in two massive open online courses currently: Codecademy's Code Year & Coursera's Computer Science 101. It actually took me a little while to realize that, as someone who works in higher education, it was a little odd to participate in these ventures. Shouldn't I be taking classes at my local community college? Aren't I cavorting with the enemy in some seedy way? For the moment, I'm going to put aside those fears (I have another blog post in me about higher education's victim complex) & analyze the efficacy of each of the two courses.


Coursera closely resembles a traditional class & probably outright mimics some distance learning formats as it's essentially just an LMS (Learning Management System). Every week, about an hour of lectures are posted which cover a few topics. By the end of the week, one must complete several sets of exercises related to lecture material. The exercises come in one of two forms: multiple choice or computer code. There is no reading but the lectures come with some very nice notes that can be reviewed.

I found Coursera to be quite successful. This stems mainly from the instructor, Nick Parlante, who did a tremendous job of presenting concepts. He used analogies, diagrams, & sample code to boil fairly sophisticated topics (compiled versus interpreted languages, how compression works) down into easily understandable summaries. The exercises were not difficult & the code ones are executed in a basic text area, nothing fancy. The course uses a JavaScript-like syntax but with built-in functions for image & .csv manipulation that don't exist in JS, so you can't really come out of it with any coding tools.


Codecademy, despite being another MOOC, looks very different from Coursera. Sure, you're emailed new lessons every week, but there is no lecture. Instead, one works through several sets of exercises, some of which simply relay certain information & implore you to press "continue." The exercises are said to take about five hours for a person of "average technical skills," far more time than one spends doing Coursera homework.

Codecademy struggles in its attempts to see if your code is correct. It's exercises are more sophisticated & its code editor has syntax highlighting, but also struggled for months with cursor location (at least in Chrome). On many occasions, I wrote code that worked but couldn't pass whatever test determined correctness. In one instance, I had to run the exact same CSS on three different browsers (Chrome, Firefox, then Safari...which uses the same rendering engine as Chrome) before it would pass. A few exercises have typos, misspellings, or frustrating quirks that can only be overcome by viewing the FAQs to see what people before you have had to do. You do learn real, usable-in-the-wild JavaScript, CSS, HTML, & it looks like (starting this week) Code Year is even dipping into the jQuery JavaScript library.

Compare, Contrast

Overall, I side with Coursera. It's a less flashy, revolutionary model–& better for it. A good instructor will always beat out a bunch of start-up engineers who don't know anything about pedagogy. CS 101 didn't teach me a whole lot I didn't know (I regret not taking a more advanced course), but it did so in a thoroughly enjoyable manner devoid of frustrations.

One area that both courses did not succeed in was scaffolding. There's too much of it. Too many code exercises start with a basic structure already in place; in Codecademy, it's not unusual for dozens of lines of new boilerplate code to appear at each step. But most people learn through repetition, not through having the little boring bits done for them every time. & the one skill that neither course, at least not with their present correctness heuristics, can teach is problem-solving. Neither is in position to say "here's a problem, solve it with code" which is a bigger aspect of CS than "memorize what these four expressions do." That requires human graders & is the real strength of CS courses or face-to-face meet-ups.

Some questions I've taken away from these courses: what would a massive, open, online library science course might look like, who would teach it, & what the demand would be? Librarians have valuable skills to transmit but I'm not sure what we could teach that would draw an audience. How to research? At the same time, "information literacy" is a difficult subject to test. It won't translate as well as computer code, which literally boils down to Boolean values with nothing in between. Does anyone know of any MOOC LIS courses? With all of the prominent online programs at LIS schools, it seems natural that one will crop up eventually.


  1. Interesting comments about an LIS MOOC! There are some open courses - in that the course materials are available online such as Open Michigan's School of Information courses ( Could one of those be turned into a MOOC? If so, could anyone get credit from an ALA accredited institution for working through the course? What about continuing ed? Do you think anyone could be talked into skirting ACRL, ALA, etc and offering some continuing ed courses that were free and open to all?

  2. I guess "LIS" was a bad way of framing that, because I was actually thinking of information literacy courses for non-librarians & not courses that would count towards an MLIS. Either way, most MOOCs don't, at this point, translate into credit towards any degree. But they do educate, which is more important.
    I do think they hold tremendous potential for things like continuing ed, which aren't for-credit anyways. I know that there are occasional free ALA webinars & such but none have approached full course rigor AFAIK. I'd definitely be interested in pressing that issue to see if ALA or any other organization would be willing to sponsor an open course.